Part Twelve: If It’s October, It Must Be Fair Day
“You asshole!” I yell at the driver in front of me after he cuts me off then proceeds to drive significantly below the speed limit while simultaneously gabbing on the cell phone and scanning for a place to park his BMW. Finally he identifies a rather diminutive parking spot and tries parallel parking while talking on the phone. His attempt at squeezing into a tight parking space while engrossed in an important phone call to his bookie, his Rogaine consultant or his proctologist—or to whomever the hell he’s talking—is downright comical, especially since he’s driving a stick-shift and is precariously holding the phone between his left ear and shoulder.
As Johnny Cell Phone attempts to squeeze his Beemer (or Bimmer, as it’s known to auto snobs) into the parking space—hitting the bumpers of the cars fore and aft—the little red sports car stutters forward and backward at least three times without much success before stalling out. Apparently he can't drive a stick much better than he can parallel park. Just then, he drops his phone into his lap, which briefly causes him to suspend his failed parking attempt to look for his phone. (His cell phone skills are commensurate with both his driving and parking deficiencies.) As he searches his crotch for the Blackberry, his BMW’s front end blocks the lane before me causing drivers in the ever-growing traffic jam behind to begin laying on their car horns, creating an atonal, postmodern cacophony which I find strangely reminiscent of a Schoenberg concerto. (Okay, so perhaps I have unusual tastes and ridiculous reference points, but bear with me.) The asshole before me is, of course, oblivious to all this noise and commotion and continues to talk on the phone. When he finally parks, his car is at least two feet farther into the intersection than every car in front and behind him.
As I drive by I yell, “asshole” again, and I give him the obligatory angry, condescending glare that drivers in Chicago learn to master within a month of residency. Ah…driving in Chicago…good times…sometimes it seems every journey in the Windy City includes at least one incident involving an asshole with a cell phone. (To be fair, Chicago doesn’t have a monopoly on annoying cell phone usage by asshole drivers.)
Anyway...once I resume driving I try to relax so that I may focus on the day’s task: to cheer the Longhorns on to victory. Driving north through Evanston on a cloudy Saturday morning in early-October en route to Tommy Nevin’s, a local Irish pub with lots of HD flat screen TVs and ice-cold Guinness, not to mention Chicagoland's best fish and chips (in this humble Texpat’s opinion), I open the window to rest my elbow comfortably on the car door so that I may feel the cool breeze outside. After a long, hot summer I can officially turn the Jeep’s AC off for the season. Thank God and Sam Houston for fall weather.
I’m not a Texas Ex (the euphemism for University of Texas alumni)—though both my late grandmothers along with several aunts and uncles are UT alumni—but as a life-long fan of Texas football, not to mention a Texpatriate living in Chicago, I always enjoy cheering for the Longhorns to celebrate my Texanism alongside other Texpats. Today is the annual Red River Shootout, a.k.a. the Texas-OU game to most longtime fans (or the OU-Texas game to folks on the other side of the Red River). Every Longhorn game is important, but none compares with the legendary rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma, which has been played annually in Dallas since 1912, except for three years: 1913 (Houston), 1922 (Norman, OK) and 1923 (Austin). Since 1932 it has been played annually at the Cotton Bowl—typically in October (i.e. during my lifetime, anyway)—during the State Fair of Texas. This year Oklahoma is favored after UT's embarrassing loss to UCLA last week. I hope to witness a Longhorn victory, but I'm not exactly oozing with confidence after giving up so many turnovers to the Bruins.
The annual Texas-OU game always brings back a flood of childhood memories. However, while these memories certainly include football—as do most memories of fall, especially for kids raised in Texas—the Texas-OU game mostly reminds me of a fantastic, bizarre, beautiful world just outside the entrance to the Cotton Bowl: the State Fair of Texas.
“Howdy Folks, This is Big Tex”
Autumn is my favorite season. It always has been. In both Dallas and Chicago, the month of October brings so many good things. Cool weather. Friday Night Lights (i.e. high school football). College football. Dallas Cowboys football. (Did I mention I like football?) A new school year. Sweaters and jackets. Comfort food. Turning leaves and changing colors. Halloween. Halloween candy. More Halloween candy. Thanksgiving turkey (and, naturally, Dallas Cowboys football on Thanksgiving day). And, of course, autumn in Dallas in its red-burnt orange splendor is synonymous with the State Fair of Texas.
Every year on this day—when Texas and Oklahoma square off at the Cotton Bowl in Big D—I am reminded of a favorite long-standing tradition shared by Metroplex schoolchildren each year: Fair Day. Every October, from kindergarten through high school, teachers throughout North Texas passed out little red tickets that provided free admission to the State Fair of Texas. Every school district in and around DFW was assigned a particular “fair day” in October, and each district closed on its assigned day to allow students and their families to visit the fair.
Presumably there was some educational or pedagogic purpose to shortening the school year by one day to allow kids like me to run wild amongst carnies, freaks, hustlers and rickety old rides across cotton candy-sticky paths through the Midway in order to glean a bit of Texas culture from the fair's many exhibits. Over the years I probably missed important lesson plans involving differential equations, quantum physics, Hegelian philosophy, or large-animal husbandry as a result of the truncated curriculum to accommodate fair day, but it was worth it.
Perhaps the intended purpose of fair day was educational, but in reality we tended to think of it as an excuse to eat as much fried food and candy apples and drink as much root beer (i.e. until high school, where it was replaced with Pabst Blue Ribbon) as possible before riding roller coasters and other spine-jarring adventures of the Midway that would inevitably make you vomit. And when I say fried food, I really mean Fletcher’s corny dogs, a staple at the Fair. In hindsight, perhaps the combination of corny dogs, candy apples, root beer (much less PBR) and rickety roller coasters is not ideal. But it sure was a hell of a lot of fun.
The State Fair of Texas is a magical place, especially to impressionable kids raised during the Carter Administration. Upon entering the Fair, one immediately spies Big Tex—a giant, stiff-moving, fiberglass robot-like statue wearing Lee Jeans (or Wrangler, or Levi's, or Dickey’s, or whichever denim company has the current contract)—who greets all visitors with his Texas accent accompanied by stiff, jerky mandibular movements reminiscent of Howdy Doody or one of the various 70s claymation TV shows (e.g. Thunderbirds, Davey and Goliath, etc.). In hindsight it seemed that every family visiting the Fair agreed to rally after a full day of fried food and Midway games near Big Tex. As a result, the perimeter surrounding this 52 foot iconic statue—who wears size 70 boots and a 75 gallon hat—was jam packed with bustling crowds eating every type of fried food imaginable, transforming this tiny space into the center of the Texas universe each October day after 3:00 PM. How can one be a real Texan and not love Big Tex? After all, he's not Big Iowa or Big Nebraska, much less Big Illinois…he's Big “Freakin” Tex.
However, apart from its myriad kitschy aspects, including the Midway and Big Tex, the Fair is actually a rather beautiful place. The area known as Fair Park, which was built for the Texas Centennial in 1936, hosts the world’s best collection of existing 1930s art deco architecture, all of which was restored over the last couple decades. It’s easy to overlook the simple lines and elegant design of the fair’s classic buildings—from the Hall of State and the Women’s Building to the Food and Fiber Pavilion, not to mention the world-famous Cotton Bowl—while eating a fried Frito pie or fried butter or fried anything-on-a-stick and gulping down an ice-cold Shiner Bock. But resting on a bench along the Esplanade or along the path near Leonhardt Lagoon one can truly enjoy the sublime beauty of Fair Park.
There are so many things to love about the State Fair of Texas. For any kid like me who experienced Fair Day in the late-1970’s the following childhood memories are likely to be both shared and beloved: Fletcher’s Corny Dogs. Jack's Fries. The auto show. Auto show models. The livestock show. The Midway. Midway games of chance (especially throwing a ring around the bottle or quarters on a saucer, etc). Plush prizes won on the Midway. The roller coaster and the myriad haunted houses. Fresh, home-made root beer. Cotton candy. Candy apples (NB: I lost a baby tooth or two on these). The Freak Show (affectionately known as “Circus Strange People," which included: “World's Smallest Mother, World’s Fattest Man, Rubber Boy, Tattooed Lady, Giant Snake, Midget Snake Wrestler, and Princess Uraana the Ape Girl,” among others). The Swiss Sky Ride (i.e. an aerial tram, which closed in 1979 after a fatal accident that killed a man). The Ferris Wheel. The Cotton Bowl. Eating a corny dog on the steps of the Cotton Bowl's main entrance. The empty blue and green seats of the Cotton Bowl following a game or a marching band competition. Fried everything. Tattooed carnies. Big-haired ladies selling home-made quilts. The Food and Fiber Pavilion. Food at the Food and Fiber Pavilion. The grand Esplanade. The Leonhardt Lagoon with its dragon-like terra cotta earth sculpture. Big Tex, obviously. And did I mention Fletcher's hand-made, deep-fried corny dogs? (A brief word on Freak Shows: the world’s fattest man in the late ‘70s is about the average size of the typical Texas suburbanite today, and the tattooed lady of that era looks like the typical college student in 2010.)
The afternoon of the Texas-OU game is perhaps the most exciting and electric four hours each fall at Fair Park. Ironically, what I remember most about this annual football tradition from a patchwork of collected childhood memories is not attending the game. Rather, I vividly recall sitting on the steps of the Cotton Bowl beneath the October sun just outside the stadium's main entrance during the second quarter eating one of Fletcher's finest, drinking a home-made root beer, and listening to cheers from the enormous crowd just over the stadium wall behind me following a big play.
As I looked behind me past the ticket takers and through the opening gate I could barely glimpse a narrow sliver of the reddish-orange crowd through the tunnel that led to a high-dollar section along the 50 yard-line. Resting on the steps outside the Cotton Bowl listening to the muffled screams and muted clapping was, strangely, more exciting than sitting in the blue-green seats cheering for the Longhorns. The episodic roar of the crowd that hinted at a long pass or a turnover, and the sounds of crestfallen fans oohing and ahhing after a near-touchdown pass provided a sublime soundtrack as I sat and soaked in the Fair's exotic sights, smells and sounds. Repetitive echoes of “Texas Fight” played over and over by the Longhorn Marching Band coupled with periodic crowd bursts pouring over the walls and seeping through the tunnels of the Cotton Bowl was downright exhilarating, and I wondered what had happened or who had scored.
Following the game, fans emptied the Cotton Bowl turning the Midway into a pointillistic mixture of burnt orange and red. As dusk approached, the red-orange setting sun blended with the Texas-OU colored-apparel on the multitude of fans before me and it seemed God was smiling down on Big D.
Hook 'em Horns
Back in Evanston…as I look for a parking place within a half-mile of Tommy Nevin’s Pub—a process that will likely take at least 20 minutes and several challenging U-turns—a smile overcomes my face as I recall fond memories spent with family and friends eating corny dogs and watching college football. My tense shoulders ease and my white-knuckled hands relax on the steering wheel, and I can forget the bad drivers and congestion and noise of Chicago all around me. I am calm in the bosom of childhood memories replete with the fragrance of corny dogs and candy apples and the sounds football on a cool, autumn day back home in Big D.
Regardless of the outcome of today’s game, I will look up to the TV screen to see colorful, high-definition images of the storied Cotton Bowl and remember the resplendent, joyous, care-free afternoons from my Texas childhood. And I thank God and Sam Houston for college football at Fair Park on a cool, autumn day in Dallas.